Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg by Irene Pepperberg - Read Online
Alex & Me
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On September 6, 2007, an African Grey parrot named Alex died prematurely at age thirty-one. His last words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, were "You be good. I love you."

What would normally be a quiet, very private event was, in Alex's case, headline news. Over the thirty years they had worked together, Alex and Irene had become famous—two pioneers who opened an unprecedented window into the hidden yet vast world of animal minds. Alex's brain was the size of a shelled walnut, and when Irene and Alex first met, birds were not believed to possess any potential for language, consciousness, or anything remotely comparable to human intelligence. Yet, over the years, Alex proved many things. He could add. He could sound out words. He understood concepts like bigger, smaller, more, fewer, and none. He was capable of thought and intention. Together, Alex and Irene uncovered a startling reality: We live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures.

The fame that resulted was extraordinary. Yet there was a side to their relationship that never made the papers. They were emotionally connected to one another. They shared a deep bond far beyond science. Alex missed Irene when she was away. He was jealous when she paid attention to other parrots, or even people. He liked to show her who was boss. He loved to dance. He sometimes became bored by the repetition of his tests, and played jokes on her. Sometimes they sniped at each other. Yet nearly every day, they each said, "I love you."

Alex and Irene stayed together through thick and thin—despite sneers from experts, extraordinary financial sacrifices, and a nomadic existence from one univer­sity to another. The story of their thirty-year adventure is equally a landmark of scientific achievement and of an unforgettable human-animal bond.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061980459
List price: $9.99
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Alex & Me - Irene Pepperberg

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Chapter 1

My Wonderful Life Moment

How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world? It took death for me to find out. And so I write the story of a particular bird’s life, but it must begin at the end.

"Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End," ran a New York Times science section headline on September 11, 2007, the day after our press release announcing Alex’s passing. He knew his colors and shapes, he learned more than 100 English words, wrote Benedict Carey, and with his own brand of one-liners he established himself in television shows, scientific reports and news articles as perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird. Carey quoted my friend, colleague, and expert on dolphin and elephant communication, Diana Reiss: The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains. That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains—at least Alex’s—with some awe.

I found myself saying much the same thing in the newspaper, magazine, radio, and television interviews that overwhelmed me those first few days. People would ask, What is all the fuss about, why was Alex so special? and I’d say, Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking. That was the scientific truth I had known for many years, and now the idea was beginning to be accepted. But that didn’t help me with the personal devastation.

Friends drove up from Washington, D.C., that first weekend to ensure I would not be alone, that I would eat and at least try to rest. I functioned each minute, hour, day on automatic pilot, doing whatever was necessary, deprived of sleep, torn by grief. And all amidst this very public outpouring. I was aware of it, of course, yet not fully aware, not then, anyway. I was cognizant of the gathering acclaim, inevitably so because of this endless stream of interviews. But it seemed to involve someone else, or at least had an unreality to it. The phone would ring and I’d click into interview mode, responding as I had many other times when something Alex had done occasioned a media blitz, responding in a professional manner to the inquiries. This time, however, I’d fall apart until the next call.

Pictures of Alex appeared on CNN, in Time magazine, and in scores of other places across the country. National Public Radio ran a story on All Things Considered: Alex the Parrot, an Apt Student, Passes Away. ATC’s host, Melissa Block, said, Alex shattered the notion that parrots are only capable of mimicking words. Diane Sawyer did a two-and-a-half-minute segment on ABC’s Good Morning America—long for morning television, I’m told. And now I have a kind of obituary, she began, and I want to inform the next of kin about a death in the family. And, yes, the next of kin would be all of us. She said that Alex had been a kind of bird genius, opening new vistas on what animals can do. She aired a video that showed Alex answering questions about the color, shape, and number of objects, and so on. The video landed on YouTube. The previous day, CBS anchor Katie Couric devoted more time to Alex’s life and death than to major political stories.

Two days later, the prominent British newspaper, The Guardian, wrote, America is in mourning. Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31. The story was spreading around the world, eventually to Australia. Robyn Williams, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio Science Show, interviewed me, the second time we’d talked about Alex and his achievements. The first time, five years earlier, we’d talked about what other feats Alex might achieve in his future. Not this time.

I was told that the New York Times article had been the most e-mailed story of the day, even while General David Petraeus was testifying in Washington, D.C., on Iraq. A second New York Times article, on September 12, in its Editorial Notebook section, was titled simply Alex the Parrot, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This piece was a little more philosophical than most. Thinking about animals—and especially thinking about whether animals can think—is like looking at the world through a two-way mirror, Klinkenborg began. There, for example, on the other side of the mirror, is Alex…. But looking at Alex, who mastered a surprising vocabulary of words and concepts, the question is always how much of our reflection we see. The article ended: The value [of the work] lies in our surprise, our renewed awareness of how little we allow ourselves to expect from the animals around us. A lovely piece, another acknowledgment. But it still felt unreal.

Even Jay Leno had a crack at Alex, on his late-night TV show. (A friend told me about it; I don’t have a working TV.) Sad news: a thirty-year-old parrot by the name of Alex, who had been used by researchers at Harvard University to study how parrots communicate, has died, said Leno. I believe his last words were, ‘Yes, I want a cracker!’ He went on, This parrot was very intelligent. They say he knew over one hundred words. They say his intelligence was somewhere between a dog and Miss Teen South Carolina. Sigh.

By now every major newspaper had covered Alex’s death, noting his remarkable cognitive skills and our breakthrough work together. Even the venerable British science journal Nature wrote about it in Farewell to a Famous Parrot. Pepperberg has published dozens of scientific papers about Alex’s verbal, mathematical and cognitive abilities, noted David Chandler, and the two have appeared on a wide variety of television programmes and popular press stories. Chandler continued, In the process, they have transformed people’s understanding of the mental abilities of non-human animals. (A bittersweet irony here: when I started working with Alex three decades earlier, a paper I submitted to Nature was summarily dismissed without review—as was another I had submitted more recently.)

If, in retelling this outpouring of public recognition, I seem oddly absent, it is because in truth I was. Inasmuch as I was aware of article after article—and friends were assiduous in sending them to me—I continued to let them and their message wash over me. Yes, I was busy with the issue of facing and surviving each new day, busy being interviewed, busy with the lab. At the same time, I could hardly hear what was being said. I had for years been hoping that Alex’s achievements would be fully acknowledged, and now it had happened, but I couldn’t see it clearly, hear it clearly. Not immediately, anyway.

When, a little more than a week after Alex left me, the New York Times did a third article, "Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?" I began to take notice. George Johnson, a senior science writer, beautifully described the research, and addressed the issue of intention, implicit in the article’s title. In the United States, the Times is a touch-stone for public recognition, whether in politics, the arts, or the sciences. And here was Alex, appearing three times within a week in the paper of record. Hmm, I thought. Maybe there’s something to all this?

Then, a few days later, a friend called. "Irene, you are never going to believe this. Alex is in the Economist!" She was right. I wasn’t going to believe it. The Economist is probably the world’s preeminent weekly magazine on politics, finance, and business. Each week it has a one-page obituary of some notable dignitary. In the September 20 issue, Alex was that dignitary. Alex’s death, said the article, brought to an end a life spent learning complex tasks that, it had been originally thought, only primates could master. The obituary went on to say that by the end [of the study] Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and had not reached his full potential. Not reached his full potential—how true, how tragically true.

Given that in the weeks prior to Alex’s obit the Economist had run Luciano Pavarotti’s, Ingmar Bergman’s, and Lady Bird Johnson’s, I knew just how big an honor it was for Alex to be on this obituary page. It really caught my attention.

In the days and weeks following Alex’s death I was roiled by multiple tsunamis of surprise, around me and within me, while struggling to deal with the practical matters, answering phone calls, making arrangements, and much more, because of who Alex was. And my mind was desperately churning: What’s to become of the lab? What’s to become of the research? What’s to become of everything we’ve created? What’s to become of me?

I felt swept up in the kind of speeded-up, whirling, swirling cloudscape that one sometimes sees in movies. Except that the concept of the cloudscape went beyond the physical image of chaos to a reality that turned upside down everything that I knew, or thought I knew, about my life.

And surprise was indeed the correct term, even if too simple a word to impart the true weight of its message. The sense of loss, grief, and desertion that tore viscerally at my heart and soul at the passing of my one-pound colleague and companion of three decades was of a degree and intensity I had never anticipated, nor could have imagined. A huge torrent of love and caring, assiduously kept in check by a solid dam for all that time, suddenly burst through; the liberated flood of emotions swept all reason before it. I have never felt such pain nor shed more tears. And hope never to again.

Now, I said that a great torrent of emotions had been assiduously kept in check for three decades, as if by some third party I’d hired to do the job, some outside contractor, Emotion Controllers, Incorporated. Of course, the one doing the controlling all that time had been me. My decision. My plan. My implementation. But I had become so good at implementing my plan of emotional distance that this profound torrent of feelings that was the subterranean currency between Alex and me lay out of sight, invisible even to me, beyond the rugged mountains of the cause of scientific objectivity. Mostly invisible, anyway. Mostly out of sight.

I realize that what I just said might make little or no sense to many people, might seem a little Tolkienesque, even. But, in truth, there is something a little Tolkienesque about the thirty-year journey that Alex and I undertook together: the struggles, the initial triumphs, the setbacks, the unexpected and often stunning achievements. And, of course, the premature, final separation. All will unfold, including the rationale for erecting the emotion dam, in the following pages of Alex & Me. But my point here is that the internal tsunami I experienced after Alex left me and traveled to what many call the Rainbow Bridge was the seismic shock of previously unexpressed emotion, emotion now set free. Yes, I had always cared about Alex, always referred to him as my close colleague, and always treated him with the kind of affection and respect one would have for any close colleague. But I also always had had to maintain my distance, to report the science objectively. Now there would be no more science, at least with Alex, and I could no longer maintain that objectivity.

The external tsunami was no less surprising. As I weathered the media onslaught, e-mail condolences began to arrive. A trickle at first, but within a few hours it became a torrent, then a flood. Jaimi Torok, our Web master, set up a separate condolence site, Remembering Alex, so as not to overwhelm the server of the foundation that supported my research with Alex. More than two thousand messages were posted within a week, three thousand by the end of the month; my own e-mail was awash with just as many. Some were from people I knew, such as former students; I was comforted by hearing how their time with Alex and me had been so important to them and had helped steer them in their lives. Some were from people who had visited the lab just once and wanted to remember that special occasion and share it again. But most were from complete strangers, people who were simply moved to write. Many were parrot people, of course, but not all. And what they wrote truly astonished me, another of those tsunamis of surprise.

Of course, I wasn’t totally unaware of Alex’s impact. Soon after Alex and I started working together, I began to be invited to talk at parrot clubs and conferences, to tell people what I had discovered in my work with Alex. Parrot owners are passionate about their birds, and what I told these parrot people about Alex vindicated what they knew about their own birds. They could tell their skeptical friends, See, I told you so! This theme was prominent in the condolence Web site. Let me give a few examples:

It goes without saying that Alex and Irene pushed into realms others thought at minimum silly and otherwise absurd, but we Grey folk know better, wrote Laurence Kleiner, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He is also president of Wings Over the Rainbow, a rescue/rehab organization for abandoned or unwanted birds. Alex was the beacon and Irene the charge to make it happen; to show the world how truly remarkable our avian friends are. Displaying so elegantly the talents and feelings hithertofore attributed only to humans; how egocentric of us as a species…Alex will be remembered always by thousands.

I cried like a baby when I heard about Alex’s untimely death, wrote Linda Ruth. As a biologist, veterinarian and lifelong bird owner, I found Alex’s accomplishment to be a remarkable demonstration of the intelligence and abilities many animals have…. Using Alex [as an example] I have been able to convince many skeptics that the gulf between humans and animals is not nearly as deep as once thought.

As a co-owner of an exceptional Grey, I am devastated by this shocking news, wrote a male financial executive in New England. I am not an overly sensitive or maudlin person, but I had to leave work for a while upon learning of Alex’s death, and my eyes have been welling up at various points throughout the day. My deepest sympathies to all of you who have worked so hard with this inimitable, surpassingly beautiful creature.

Gandhi once said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ wrote Karen Webster, the managing director of the Anchorage chapter of Parrot Education & Adoption Center. Irene and Alex were that change. One woman working with one (in the beginning, anyway) gray ball of personality has helped bring greater understanding and thus vast improvement into the lives of parrots worldwide. Quite a legacy.

As you will come to see in the following chapters, science was what drove me so hard over the years as I tried to understand the workings of brains of creatures other than ourselves, lowlier than ourselves. Many people wrote beautifully about this aspect of our lives, and how the science was bound together with Alex’s emotional impact:

I taught an undergraduate course in animal behavior a few years ago and introduced the class to Alex, showing the infamous PBS video with Alan Alda, said Deborah Duffy, a researcher in animal behavior at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. "They were amazed! Alex made a strong impression on my students